Shapes, Sizes and Stuffings

It’s hard to overlook pasta’s wide ranging physical attributes and on that score, pasta may be categorised not only by length into long, short and tiny, but also by density (hollow/solid), and surface texture (smooth/ribbed).

For a food so invested with Italianess, it should come as no surprise that the pasta course is referred to as il primi. Yet it is also true that the corn-based polenta has and continues to be used generously in the  North where rice too has a large role to play.

Polenta
The North of Italy only gave in to the charms of pasta as late as the 19th Century CE. The cornmeal-based polenta (along with rice) comfortably held sway here as staple base, and continues to be regarded as the preferred meal. Although maize came to Italy only in the 17th Century it quickly exploded in popularity throughout the region, not least because it combined so well with a range of foods, notably, the regionally-important dairy items. While the highly versatile polenta is traditionally enjoyed as a first course, because it firms up so well, it is also fried and grilled. It can also be used to form the base of crostini.   

Rice
If you thought this compelling grain had no fans in Europe, its following in North Italy should come as a pleasant surprise. Italy is Europe’s largest producer of this cereal grain which has been grown in the exceptionally fertile Po Valley as early as the 14th Century.

Risotto, the most favoured preparation of rice in Italy that requires careful cooking in broth with one of three main rice varietieswhich are perfect for risotto’s sought-after creamy consistency –Arborio which is a favourite in North Italy, the Venetian special - Vialone Nano, and Carnaroli which is a hybrid of a Japanese variety and the Vialone. Risotto is enjoyed in many forms including the pea-studded risi e bisi, the rich and golden risotto alla Milanese and a range of seafood known collectively as risotto ai frutti di mare. Its versatility also means rice sits very well in thick soups like minestrone, in snacks such as the Sicilian arancini which are fried rice balls and in various antipasti too – it makes up the stuffing in pomodori al riso (rice-stuffed tomatoes)

 

Breads – Pane e Companatico

While pasta may go back much further than polenta (the Etruscans were making it back in 400 BCE), breads beat both in the longevity stakes. From the earliest times, pastes from a variety of grains, nuts and pulses including chestnuts and chickpeas went into the making of breads and cakes.Bread is anything but an accompaniment in the Italian view as expressed by the phrase ‘pane e companatico’ which means ‘bread and something to go along with it’ and it would be uncommon not to see bread make an appearance in some form at a meal. Even if it’s just used to dip into a sauce or wipe the plate clean. Breads take on countless avatars – from the music sheets (carta da musica) of Sardinia to focacce–the prototype of pizza, to the unleavened piadina, similar to our rotis.

It’s in the Dough
It's said, bread is what Michelangelo survived on through his extended creative phases. If that is so, fans of Renaissance art and Michelangelo certainly, have much to thank whole blessed batches of dough as well as the baker. The dough and the maker has a lot riding on them in the case of pizzas too because the quality of the dough defines the exact experience of the much vaunted crust.

The selection of flour plays a big part here and pizza experts will tell you that high gluten flour ensures a crust that is thick, crispy and chewy. Low gluten flour (sold in Italy as Tipo 00 pizza flour) is finer and makes for a more delicate, tender experience as in the case of the Neapolitan pizza which is made from finely ground flour from low-gluten winter wheat. Since gluten decides the elasticity of the crust, flour that his higher in gluten, such as bread flour and semolina ensure s a chewier engagement, which also has its votaries.